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A Field Guide to Trade Show Attendees

A humorous look at inspection equipment and those who buy and sell it.

February was domestic trade show month in our business and in our industry, giving us the opportunity to be both exhibitor and visitor. IPC Apex Expo in San Diego afforded us the occasion to view the assembled inhabitants in their natural state, i.e., hawking their wares. The Medical Design and Manufacturing (MD&M) Show in Anaheim allowed us to be the inhabitants, honing our own sales pitch. Hunter and hunted within a short span. 

Two different perspectives over a total of six days spread between two distinctly different shows allows much time for cataloguing the various species at home in their native environments. While passing judgment. We are test engineers, after all.

Marlin Perkins, eat your heart out.

The Sales Rep (Granularius preposterii). Preternaturally optimistic, often disturbingly so, despite all evidence to the contrary. Makes abundant use of buzzwords (granularity, reaching out, touching base, etc.) as rhetorical wallpaper to divert unwelcome scrutiny and to compensate for lack of technical knowledge, naturally always at the end of the day. The aisles of the show may resemble ghost towns; cannonballs could traverse a row of booths without striking a soul, and booth dwellers may be muttering indignant sonnets to themselves. No matter to the Sales Rep. Business is always good and getting better. In darker, off-the-record moments, known to kick cats.

First, some generalizations. I have been attending electronics trade shows since 1980. My first show was Nepcon West in Anaheim, CA, in the heyday of booth babes, leisure suits, chest hair and puka shells. In those days one couldn’t always be sure whether it was the equipment, the material or the chemical that was the primary object, or service, being marketed and, ahem, sold. Having attended dozens of trade shows both here and abroad since then, I feel qualified to observe that we are considerably more buttoned-down in 2015, infinitely more professional and definitely more equality minded, all of which I view approvingly as evidence of progress.

My other general observation, as far as the board test component of electronics is concerned, is that new technological developments tend to fall in one of two categories: They are either a. Revolutionary, or b. Evolutionary. The development of in-circuit testing in the 1970s by Zehntel (later Teradyne), Hewlett-Packard (later Agilent, still later Keysight), GenRad, Factron/Fairchild/Schlumberger and others, was a revolutionary breakthrough in speed and diagnostic capability.
Likewise, the introduction of automatic x-ray inspection (AXI) by Four Pi and later HP/Agilent in the 1990s was equally game-changing. Both ICT and AXI were breakthrough solutions to a problem: specifically, how to measure and monitor assembly process performance, and spot hidden defects, at a pace to match production, and at an affordable cost. Both platforms eliminated the drudgery of manual test and inspection. These extraordinary tools became part of the common household lexicon in electronics manufacturing, acquiring the exalted status of verbs rather than nouns, and remain so to this day.

The Collector (Acquisatorius domesticae). Snaps up all the freebies. Hopes nobody is looking. Labors to avoid intrusive queries as to how they arrived on the show floor in the first place. Has no intention of purchasing any products or services. Has neither knowledge of those products or services, nor any desire to learn about them. Apparent mission in life is to populate impoverished suburbs with lifesaving post-it notes and ballpoint pens adorned with pick-and-place manufacturer logos. Perhaps the flea market stand needs restocking. Never, ever makes eye contact. Frequently hunched over from the accumulated burden of hoisting multiple swag bags.

There have been evolutionary tools as well. The development of JTAG/boundary scan hardware and software at Texas Instruments and H-P falls, in my opinion, into this latter category. As boards got smaller, program enhancements became necessary as a substitute for gaining direct, dedicated physical access to chains of digital devices. The four IEEE 1149.1 compliant pins (TDI, TDO, TCK, TMS) became substitutes for test points, creating in effect virtual ICT, thereby directly addressing the challenge posed by increased packaging density, just in time for the advent of smartphones and tablets. Through the years, boundary scan technology has been refined to the degree that it is now used in standalone mode on the bench, in ICT, and, increasingly, on flying probe test systems.

Now, the specifics.

I would characterize this year’s crop of testing and test engineering equipment on display as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. For example, 3D was the big buzzword among all of the x-ray and AOI manufacturers. It has been for the past few years, with manufacturers trying to one-up each other in megapixels and superior resolution. All in my estimation continue to struggle with the engineering challenges posed by the throughput/resolution tradeoff. Several manufacturers cautioned me as a potential future user not to make any important purchasing decisions in the x-ray/AOI direction until they showed me their Next Big Thing (NBT). Unfortunately, in almost all cases NBT was not on the show floor (doubtless still at Area 51 undergoing flight testing by night out of prying eyes of Russian and Chinese spy satellites). Maybe next year.

The Consultant (Anologus obsolescens). Distant relation to the Collector. Very distant. Invariably old guys. Always guys. The ur-nerds. Frequently legacy vacuum tube dwellers irrevocably trapped in a solid-state world. Another cohort having no intention of purchasing any products or services. Love data books. Fun at parties. Consultants inhabit two subgroups: The first lacks any redeemable social skills and hopes you won’t notice them skimming all your booth’s brochures in one graceful stroke into their souvenir swag bag. It’s all over in seconds. The second subgroup locks eyes and never leaves, regaling you with one story after another about the Redstone or Bomarc missile programs or the way we did it at Philco Ford or when we beta-tested the IBM 360. Usually lives alone or with aging mother. Likes to win prize raffles because it makes them feel wanted for the first time in decades. 

The flying probe manufacturers were all there, proudly displaying 10-year-old technology for the 10th consecutive year. One manufacturer told me of their NBT (see above), still in development (see also references to Area 51 above), which will, it is rumored, secure the holy grail combining analog flying probe testing with boundary scan, laser checking of polarity and planarity (a proxy for AOI), bottom-side ICT, and LED checking (color and intensity) all in one compact system. For a mere four hundred thousand dollars. Maybe. If only we have the patience to wait for a few bugs to be worked out, like, well, once again, suboptimal throughput.

ICT was, well, ICT. Or rather, Keysight and a few other guys in the shadows. Rumors of the death of ICT have been slightly exaggerated. Nonetheless, not much new here either. Keysight is heavily marketing its x1149 JTAG solution for the 3070, but it is clearly a byproduct of evolution rather than revolution. How many additional 3070s it will contribute to selling in a thoroughly saturated market is an open question. Also of interest is whether Keysight’s recent divestiture from Agilent will result in a more nimble, effective, entrepreneurial test and measurement company. Now that’s an evolution that will be interesting to watch. For now the jury is still very much out.

The Decision-Maker (Dignitatis incomprehensibus). Makes big decisions; hence the term. Likes to be recognized, the more the better. Often accompanied by an entourage. Also likes to be seen as really busy (“I’ll squeeze you in for a 10-minute meeting at Starbuck’s between exhorting/browbeating my West Coast Rep and rushing off to my can’t-miss IPC tutorial on “Better Living through Conflict Minerals”), hoping you’ll draw the obvious conclusion that you are not and, therefore, less important. Sets cellphone volume on “loud.” Glances at it frequently. Often started life as Sales Rep (see above). Gave up ethics for Lent, decided they liked it, and made the arrangement permanent. No money in being nice. Has master’s degree in schmoozing. Also a Ph.D. in buzzwords. Authority figure. Only vowel they know is the letter “i.”

So, in summary, there appears to be nothing new under the sun in the testing and inspection world. No permanent solutions or all-encompassing magic bullets. No compelling reasons to buy new stuff. Continue using what we have until evolution springs to revolution. Come back next year, when Area 51 reveals its secrets. Whenever. Meanwhile, we keep observing the wildlife from both sides of the table.

Back to you, Marlin.